House of Dragon made clear from the start that it planned to recast its main characters six episodes in, which didn’t sit well with the masses: Understandably, fans fell in love with the younger actors — especially Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra Targaryen — and saw no need to fix casting that wasn’t broken.
On Sunday, we finally saw Episode 6, “The Princess and the Queen,” and understood why the show felt the need to do what it did. Fast-forwarding ten years after Episode 5 of House of the Dragon, “The Princess and the Queen” is practically a new pilot — and also one of the best episodes of the Game of Thrones prequel yet. (Some spoilers follow.)
Episode 6 quickly put casting concerns to rest, by just ripping off the leech. (Normally we’d say Band-Aid, but given the state of medical care in Westeros…) Instead of allowing us time to ponder the resemblance between the younger actors and their replacements, the show immediately sweeps us into drama: a painful childbirth, a ridiculous request of Rhaenyra (now played by Emma D’Arcy) made by Queen Alicent (formerly played by Emily Carey, and now played by Olivia Cooke.) It was a huge success that when “Alicent” began immediately trending on Twitter, most of the chatter was about her awful behavior, not her appearance.
But even if fans were given time to linger on the recasting, they would have to be impressed: The resemblances between Emma D’Arcy and Milly Alcock are striking, as are those between Emily Carey and Olivia Cooke. The transition from Savannah Steyn to Nanna Blondell playing Laena was another success, as was the one from Theo Nate to John Macmillan in the role of Laenor.
House of the Dragon added to the suspension of disbelief by so pointedly aging up the other characters, too: King Viserys (Paddy Considine), who took a bad turn in Episode 5, is now in an even more visibly debilitated state: sickly pale, discolored, and half-bald, never without a tissue (and accompanying cough). Many on social media compared his appearance to that of the skeletal Crypt Keeper from another beloved HBO series, Tales From the Crypt.
Prince Daemon (Matt Smith) has returned to his long-haired self, though maturation and mysterious events of the past decade seem to have aged his face. Even the Strong brothers and their father, who replaced Otto Hightower as the Hand — look proportionally older. The only one who seems to have been hitting the gym, hydrating and staying out of the sun is Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel), who remains as youthful as ever.
Princess Rhaenyra is now both a fully formed young woman and mother to three boys. Solemn, collected, and necessarily calculating, she now faces a dilemma that has moved from one of marriage to one of parentage. Her children do not boast the silver-white locks of herself and her husband, Laenor Velayron, and their brown hair is a red flag.
In an effort to both protect Laenor’s sexuality and feed her own desire for intimacy, Rhaenyra has been consorting with Ser Harwin Strong, Commander of the City Watch. Aware of Queen Alicent’s obsessive whims, and trying to be impervious to them, Rhaenyra is no longer the impulsive, puckish teenager we adored in the first half of the season.
We also have a Littlefinger 2.0 — Larys Strong, played by Matthew Needham — who has tried to put Alicent’s demands for retribution into practice by killing off his own brother and father. (Not that she asked him to.) We can only imagine the lengths Rhaenyra will go to throughout the rest of the season to preserve her family.
As for Prince Daemon, he and his wife, Laena Velayron, are nomads, traipsing across the continents with their two twin daughters, Baela and Rhaena, and a third child on the way. Daemon’s daring pursuits have been replaced by insomnia-motivated reading of historical heroes, and his recklessness and party-boy ways have been superseded by a softness, perhaps from his seemingly genuine love of his family. Of course, things may soon change, given the tragedy that befalls Laena late in the episode.
The most remarkable House of the Dragon character transformation, however, is that of Alicent Hightower. Once naive, strictly observant, and relatively passive, Rhaenyra’s former companion now doubles as both a wicked stepmother and a cunning, manipulative member of the King’s council.
Vocally suspicious of the paternity of Rhaenyra’s children and intensely protective of her own, Alicent has clearly taken to heart her father’s counsel to “prepare Aegon to rule” to heart. But she still favors green — the color of the beacon that calls Oldtown’s banners to war. Now that she’s been played by a pair of excellent actors, Alicent is two-faced in every sense.
House of the Dragon airs Sundays on HBO.
Above: Milly Alcock, L, and Emmy D’Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen; Emily Carey, left, and Olivia Cooke as Alicent Hightower on House of the Dragon.